To Cheat and Lie In L.A.:The College Admissions Scandal That Shocked America
It was so not like Jane Buckingham to behave this way. After all, she was the model for a responsible, successful, hip 21st-century parent. She built her career on being an expert in millennial and Generation Z trends, she wrote articles on parenting, gave talks on the subject, was featured on shows like Good Morning America and Today. We parents need to be more chill, she told people in her girlish, approachable way. Let our kids make mistakes. Don't bulldoze a path for them. And yet here she was, committing a crime in order to give her son a leg up.....Buckingham had hired Rick Singer to shepherd them through the college application process. And Singer knew how to make the test easy for Jack—so easy that he wouldn't even have to take it himself.
What makes no sense at all is why parents want to live through their children, and get them into colleges which may not be the appropriate place for them.
I have four daughters, and they sought out colleges which enlarged the life goals they set for themselves.
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TO CHEAT AND LIE IN L.A.
The Varsity Blues college admissions scandal has ensnared some of Southern California's richest students at its ritziest high schools. Evgenia Peretz reports on the scheme, the continuing fallout, and the crookedest education money can buy
SEPTEMBER 2019 EVGENIA PERETZ
It was so not like Jane Buckingham to behave this way. After all, she was the model for a responsible, successful, hip 21st-century parent. She built her career on being an expert in millennial and Generation Z trends, she wrote articles on parenting, gave talks on the subject, was featured on shows like Good Morning America and Today. We parents need to be more chill, she told people in her girlish, approachable way. Let our kids make mistakes. Don't bulldoze a path for them. And yet here she was, committing a crime in order to give her son a leg up.
Summer of 2018, and the time had come for Jack, a rising senior at Los Angeles's tony Brentwood School, to take the ACT. Buckingham had hired Rick Singer to shepherd them through the college application process. And Singer knew how to make the test easy for Jack—so easy that he wouldn't even have to take it himself. Thanks to a provision for students with learning disabilities, and two alleged Singer coconspirators in Houston—master test taker Mark Riddell and test administrator Niki Williams—Jack would be able to "take" the ACT from the comfort of his own home while awaiting a tonsillectomy. Riddell, as Jane knew, would take the actual test—and score brilliantly. Later, Williams would submit that fabulous test to the ACT. Singer just needed one more thing: a handwriting sample from Jack so that Riddell could fake the essay portion convincingly. Jane asked Jack to provide one. "To whom it may concern," Jack wrote in distinct, uneven lettering, "this provides an example of my current writing style. Thank you for your attention." Jane snapped a picture of it and emailed it along. She knew she was acting bananas and tried to laugh it off. "I know this is craziness," she said to Singer. " I know it is. And then I need you to get him into USC, and then I need you to cure cancer and make peace in the Middle East." Then she forked over $35,000 of a promised $50,000 to Singer's Key Worldwide Foundation and waited for her son to get into the University of Southern California.
Eight months later, the news hit the L.A. private schools as most things did: over the smartphones. Fifty people, including 33 parents—most from L.A. and the Bay Area—had been swept up in Singer's jaw-dropping college admissions bribery scheme. Out on the Brentwood quad, there was Jane Buckingham's name. A few miles north, at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, there was the name of the respected entrepreneur father, Devin Sloane, who paid a bribe for his son Matteo to be designated as a water polo recruit for USC. Over in Hancock Park, at the Marlborough school, Jack Buckingham's friend saw her father, Morrie Tobin, exposed as both a participant in the scheme and the guy who ratted it out to the FBI. All that time she spent blabbing about the Ivy League school she'd committed to—now the truth was out. As other families learned more about the identities of the parents, they began seething—not just because these wealthy parents had cheated the system, but because some of them had done so while presenting themselves to the world as exemplary human beings.
For Singer, they were the perfect targets. Any parent obsessed with curating an image of affluence, good taste, and beneficence was exactly the sort to fixate unreasonably on a degree from Georgetown or USC. In a world dictated by status symbols, having "a kid at Yale" was the Holy Grail, the ultimate proof of a life worth envying—even if their kid was only interested in plugging products on Instagram. L.A. was teeming with such showboats. Five families, presented here, each interconnected to the others, lived behind that glossy facade. They were pillars of the community at their children's private schools. They talked about "doing good" and "giving back." Their kids were friends with one another on social media, a tribute to their own social significance. (Those children's first names that have not appeared elsewhere have been changed.) But their fates diverge: Two got caught; two have come away unscathed— so far—despite dubious entanglements; and one exposed it all, for a reason no more noble than to save his own skin.
THE BROS OF BUCKLEY
Singer had been in the college counseling business in some fashion for two decades. His illicit turn appears to have started 11 years ago in Newport Beach, just south of L.A., where he lived after years spent in Sacramento. He offered legitimate college counseling and eventually, if a parent seemed desperate enough, two options off the cheating menu: the fraudulent testing, or the engagement of one of his dirty college coaches to falsely designate the applicant as an athletic recruit. A year after hitting Newport Beach, Singer, with his energetic, athletic frame, was storming L.A. He sold his know-how at financial institutions, where he spoke to rooms full of rich parents. Once they bit, he talked about his "connections" from his years as a college basketball coach and how he could make "guarantees." And if you didn't do it his way, you'd be screwed. Word got around about Singer. As one Brentwood parent put it, he became like "the guy who everybody wants as a nutritionist, or everybody want to do Pilates with." Only the stakes were practically life or death—and you had to act fast. "Call today! Otherwise he won't pick up," one parent was told.
Brian Werdesheim knew a good thing when he saw one. Cofounder and CEO of the Summa Group—a specialized division of Oppenheimer that manages $1.5 billion of clients' personal wealth and offers financial planning advice— Werdesheim was just the sort of aspirational hotshot drawn to Singer. He served as a key point of entree for Singer in L.A. A graduate of USC, Werdesheim had been steadily hitting the marks of success. In 2004, he started the Summa Group's Children's Foundation as a way for his employees to "think about giving back," according to its website. A few years later, his two kids began attending the prestigious Buckley School. In 2016, he joined the board of Buckley, a surefire sign of arrival. In 2017, he and his wife, Janelle, had their Studio City home featured in Ventura Blvd magazine.
Priding himself on his ability to network, Werdesheim made Singer his go-to college guy for various associates as early as 2009. Former St. Louis Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom, for example, heard Singer speak at an Oppenheimer company event in 2009 and hired him to work with his son, who ended up attending USC's Thornton School of Music. Though Werdesheim, in a Forbes profile, claimed credit for introducing the two men, Rosenbloom clarified in a statement: " [W] e have never been clients of Mr. Werdesheim, and we have had no business relationship with Oppenheimer for over 15 years. Most importantly, like many others, we only used Mr. Singer for his legitimate college counseling services." Werdesheim later reportedly brought both Singer and Rosenbloom in as minority shareholders in the Welsh football team Swansea.
The networking stakes stretched ever higher. In fall 2017, one of Werdesheim's employees, Valerie Yang, facilitated one of the whopping payments made to elite institutions by two Chinese families. Described on the Summa website as "a great resource and connection for the Chinese speaking clients of the Summa group," Yang served as a translator for the father of L.A. high school student Sherry Guo, who was applying to college and whose parents wanted a sure thing (her parents' first names have been withheld from the public). In November 2017, Yang emailed Singer, according to prosecutors, saying that Mr. Guo "wished to make a 'donation' to 'one of those top schools' for his daughter's 'application.' " According to Guo's lawyer, Singer chose Yale, where he had a connection in women's soccer coach Rudy Meredith. Singer created a fake athletic profile for Guo, claiming that she was cocaptain of a Southern California club soccer team. Members of Guo's family paid $1.2 million to Singer's fake charity, Key Worldwide; Singer, in turn, paid $400,000 to Meredith. In a statement to Vanity Fair, an Oppenheimer spokesperson wrote: "Neither Oppenheimer, its Summa Group or Valerie Yang, a junior employee at Oppenheimer, ever provided financial advice to the Guo family. The Guo family is not, and has never been, a client of Oppenheimer." Guo's lawyer has said the family believed the money was a legitimate charitable donation.
Werdesheim became more intimate with Singer, folding him into his charity. The Summa Group's Children's Foundation had had a sporadic giving history. According to available tax returns, from 2008 to 2017, there were just a handful of five-figure donations made to children's educational programs—plus a $1 million donation to the television show Reading Rainbow. The majority of donations were in the $1,000 to $5,000 range for local youth sports clubs. Now, in the summer of 2017, just as Werdesheim's daughter was entering high school, Werdesheim launched a new name for his foundation—the Banyan Foundation—and gave it a new mission: to give privileged L.A. teenagers an opportunity to do volunteer work. It was a worthy goal, to be sure—and one that had the added benefit of making its participants look impressive to colleges. He made Singer one of just three board members, alongside an events planner, Mitch Kirsch. Werdesheim's daughter signed up, as well as students from other elite private schools—Brentwood, Campbell Hall, Archer, and Oakwood. Singer's title wasn't just a formality. According to a Buckley source, Werdesheim extolled the wonders of Rick Singer around the school community, telling people what a fabulous job he was doing with the kids from his charity. In a statement, Werdesheim said: "Mr. Singer misrepresented himself to the Banyan Foundation and the Summa Group, as he did to the public, as a conventional advisor on college planning, focused in areas of college preparation, application, admission and selection. Mr. Singer was terminated from the board of the foundation immediately after the foundation's board learned of the allegations against him."
Werdesheim's friend and fellow board member at Buckley, Adam Bass, got hooked on Singer too. Bass's name has not surfaced in any news report, yet his Rick Singer tale stands alone in its particular set of bizarre circumstances. President and CEO of the Buchalter law firm, Bass was a bro done good. An outgoing, blustery dude—always with the phone, always with the texting—Bass had racked up several awards and accolades in his career, according to paragraph one of his online bio, including a spot on the Los Angeles Business Journal's "L.A. 500, L.A.'s Most Influential" people list. He'd gone to the University of San Diego for college and law school. Which was fine, but God help him if his daughter, whom we'll call Eliza, Buckley class of 2018, the oldest of his four children, wasn't going to do better than that.
Buckley had discouraged parents from using outside consultants and asked them to acknowledge if they were intending to do so anyway. But Bass wasn't taking any chances. He signed Eliza up with Singer, neglecting to mention it to administrators, and got to work making her an irresistible applicant. In 2017, while Eliza joined the Banyan Foundation alongside Werdesheim's daughter, Bass used his role as school board member to meddle where he arguably should not have. One of Singer's obsessions was a clean transcript. He urged his students to do everything in their power to improve a grade, even by one increment. "Whenever possible, turn your C-pluses into B-minuses and your B-pluses into A-minuses. That means working your teachers [emphasis author's]," he wrote in Getting In (2014). Bass may well have had that in his head when, in June 2017, he approached the school headmaster, James Busby, and lobbied him to change his daughter's grade in math class—from a C-plus to a B-minus. Such grade changes can be warranted under certain circumstances, if a headmaster feels that a teacher has been unfair, for example. A source close to Busby says that he agreed with Bass's reasoning at the time—that the teacher had been unfair. The change was made. Crisis averted. The following fall, Eliza applied to three colleges' early action: Georgetown, Tulane, and Loyola Marymount. The triple early-action play might have been overkill, but no matter. As Singer wrote: "Your chance of acceptance goes up 50% if you apply early, and you can apply to multiple schools with early action." The Bass family wasn't going to screw this up now.
But Singer wasn't done with the dudes on the Buckley board. Next was Devin Sloane, whose son, Matteo, was friends and classmates with Eliza Bass, and whose whole package looked very impressive to outsiders. The son of an oil executive father and Olympic athlete mother, Sloane met his future wife, Cristina, an Italian, through a spiritual guru in L.A, according to a source. They moved to Italy, where they spent several years and had three sons and a daughter, before returning to L.A. He became a successful entrepreneur in wastewater solutions, something residents of the drought-prone city took a major interest in. He and Cristina funded orphanages in India. In 2015, Sloane sponsored the Italian Special Olympics team when it came to L.A. At the closing event, his oldest son, Matteo, whose first language was Italian, translated for the Italian athletes, "It's a family you want to love," a family acquaintance puts it.
And yet, Sloane was willing to go to grotesque lengths to get Matteo into a good college. Together, Singer and Sloane selected USC and agreed to pass him off as a water polo athlete who played for the "Italian Junior National Team" and the "L.A. Water Polo" team, even though he did not play competitively. In June 2017, while fellow board member Bass was asking for his daughter's grade change, Sloane bought the necessary gear on Amazon—a ball and a bathing cap—then tasked a graphic designer to photoshop an image of his son wearing the cap, hitting the ball, in an outdoor pool. It took a while for the graphic designer to get it right. When Sloane sent Singer the photoshopped image of his son rising out of the water to hit the ball, Singer replied that the boy was "a little high out of the water—no one gets that high." Adjustments were made, and presto: Matteo got his conditional acceptance letter to USC. Sloane paid Singer $200,000 through the foundation and paid $50,000 to USC's Women's Athletics, an account controlled by Donna Heinel, the senior women's athletic director and one of Singer's alleged coconspirators. (She has been fired and has pleaded not guilty.) It was practically time to buy the USC car decal.
But Buckley wasn't enough for Singer. He trolled the other private schools, snagging two high-profile names at Marymount and L.A. County High School for the Arts—actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, respectively. And then there was Huffman's pal Jane Buckingham. She was a woman who seemed to have it all: bouncy blonde hair and a super-fit body; two careers; two popular kids, Jack and Lilia, a teenage social media influencer with 1.5 million Instagram followers; and for 21 years before they recently split, a handsome, successful husband, motivational speaker Marcus Buckingham. In her work as founder and CEO of Trendera, a youth-marketing consulting firm, and author of the Modern Girl's Guide series, Buckingham was a bubbly purveyor of savvy know-how in the quest for success. "She's smart, she's funny, she's self-deprecating," says a fellow Brentwood mother, who watched her in awe. "She's stylish without being too stylish. She's wealthy without being showy."
The parenting-expert thing was a more recent addition to her resume. Millennial entitlement? "It's not their fault, it's their parents'," Buckingham told an audience in 2016. "That's what happens when you give them a gold star for going to the potty and a trophy for not participating and telling them they are fantastic every day of their life." Brentwood gobbled up her cool mom gospel. The school hired her as a consultant to clean up its own image as a haven for entitled rich kids. In spring 2018, at It's Our Turn: Young Women's Conference at Brentwood School, which drew 1,000 students from across L.A., Buckingham spoke on a panel called "Wow Them: Your Best Self, Resume to Interview." Sometime before the scandal broke, she posted on Instagram a context-free graphic that said " DONT CHEAT " with a comment from her below: "Apply it to all aspects of life and you'll probably be ok."
Five months after the Brentwood conference, in the summer of 2018, the facade began to crack. Now, a year after splitting from Marcus, here she was, apparently working behind his back to cheat for their son. The details were proving a bit tricky to sort out. With Jack awaiting surgery for tonsillitis, he wasn't supposed to travel. How was she going to explain this to Marcus? "My ex-husband is being incredibly difficult about the whole surgery," she told Singer by phone, "If I take him to Houston and then he can't get the surgery, he's gonna be very annoyed with me."
Singer made calls to his cronies, fixing the details so that Jack could take the test from home, while Mark Riddell would complete the test in its entirety in Houston. Word got around at Brentwood that Jack was taking the test at home. It struck people as odd. But, according to a Brentwood parent, "Nobody had the sophistication to understand that he was really actually cheating." Though Buckingham tried to laugh it off to Singer as some kind of nutty act of impulsiveness, she was back on the phone with Singer four months later, in October 2018, soberly making plans for her daughter, Lilia. " [I'd] probably like to do the same thing with [my daughter] with her ACTs," she told Singer, " [because she's] not a great test taker."
Meanwhile, in Hancock Park, one of Jack's friends, whom we'll call Kate, was becoming ensnared in the scheme too, thanks to her would-be superstar parent, Morrie Tobin, who'd prove to be the final linchpin in the whole story. Born and raised in Montreal, Tobin was a good student himself, star athlete, and teen heartthrob. As a high school classmate told the Montreal Gazette, "Every guy wanted to be Morrie Tobin. I wanted to be Morrie Tobin." In 1981, he started at Yale, playing on the hockey team. "He was loud, gregarious, boisterous, and seemed to me obnoxious but basically good-natured," recalls one of his housemates, artist Alexi Worth. Some who knew him marveled that he got into Yale in the first place, but two years after starting there, he transferred to the University of Vermont. He wound up back in Canada, became a financial executive, and started a large family with his wife, Gale. He eventually moved the family from Toronto to L.A., where he began to burnish his image. On his since-disabled Twitter account, he referred to himself as #socialentrepreneur and talked about his experience volunteering at a homeless shelter. He chose for his five daughters the Marlborough school, a tony girls academy.
HE MAN IN THE MIDDLE
In the grand scheme of Varsity Blues, all roads lead back to Rick Singer.
# Prep school # Family # Scammer # College
BRENT WOOD SCHOOL Founded in 1972; has produced several Olympic athletes
MARLBOROUGH All-girls academy in Hancock Park; founded in 1889
THE BUCKLEY SCHOOL Founded in 1933 in Sherman Oaks; motto is "Dare to be true"
JANE BUCKINGHAM Parenting "expert"; paid at least $35,000 to Singer for advising her son
MORRIE TOBIN Five Marlborough daughters; exposed entire scandal when caught up in separate stock scam
DEVIN SLOANE Buckley parent and board member. Forged son's application by photoshopping water polo shots
USC Associate athletic director Donna Heinel and three coaches implicated
YALE UNIVERSITY Soccer coach pleaded guilty to bribery; rescinded admission to Singer-affiliated student
BRIAN WERDESHEIM Buckley parent and board member; connected associates and other families to Singer
RICK SINGER Pleaded guilty to money laundering, racketeering, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice in scam involving dozens of families
GUO FAMILY Enlisted Singer as adviser for daughter Sherry; paid him $1.2 million after she got into Yale
RUDY MEREDITH Former Yale women's soccer coach; pleaded guilty to taking $866,000 in bribes
GEORGETOWN Received fraudulent application from Bass; later expelled two students caught up in scandal
ADAM BASS Singer client; Buckley parent and board member
BERKELEY The school Eliza Bass ultimately attended
Marlborough had been a target community for Singer going back to 2014, perhaps even earlier. Michael Heeter, a former Marlborough college counselor, recalls one of his students at the time telling him that "she was promised UCLA" by her college consultant—a guy he'd never heard of, a guy named Rick Singer. UCLA had been recruiting the student as manager of the swim team, she told him—which was curious to Heeter given that she wasn't involved in swimming at all. Singer, the girl told Heeter, had instructed her to keep this exciting information to herself—and not to tell her school guidance counselor. Heeter promptly relayed this odd information to the then head of the school, Barbara Wagner. She instructed Heeter to email Singer not to "approach our families again." But Singer wasn't one to fear administrators.
The Tobin girls were a powerful force at Marlborough; in the perception of others, they gave off an aura of specialness and privilege. " For whatever reason, they were untouchable," says a Marlborough parent. Morrie, despite his own incomplete stint at Yale—or perhaps because of it— seemed set on Yale for his girls. And one by one, three got in (a fourth went to the University of Pennsylvania). For a small school like Marlborough, spots at a college like Yale were especially precious—Yale might only admit one or two from any given year. Given the school's competitive environment, parents and children alike studied the particulars of each Ivy League acceptance. The admittance of one Tobin daughter from Marlborough, for example, raised eyebrows with at least one parent, who felt that her own daughter, who was at the top of the class, might have been unfairly denied a spot. Still, there's no suggestion that any bribes were paid for the older girls' admissions.
His youngest daughter, Kate, was a different story. "Even at a school as rich and privileged and occasionally Mean Girls-ish as Marlborough, there was a group of kids who took that to the next level," says a parent. "She was in that group. Very savvy and competitive and alert socially, and not all that nice to girls on the outside of her group." (In addition to Jack Buckingham, her wider social network includes three others who have been implicated: Olivia Jade and Bella Giannulli, and Matteo Sloane.) As a result, some classmates viewed her warily. A source close to Kate believes "there was an element of jealousy" in their negative view of her. After all, according to this source, Kate was both a top student and a great athlete, playing club soccer at an elite level. According to this person, Kate was also concerned about unfair college admission practices she saw happening around her. On multiple occasions in 2017 and 2018, she went to school administrators and voiced her concern about students from Marlborough and elsewhere who she had heard were paying a West L.A. psychiatrist to state, erroneously, that they had a learning disability so that they could get extra time on their standardized tests.
However impressive Kate was as an applicant, Morrie Tobin wasn't taking any chances. He got a jump on Kate's college process early, starting in eighth grade. Retired Marlborough science teacher Nessim Lagnado recalls Tobin urging him to let Kate into accelerated chemistry even though she was not ready for it. (Lagnado declined.) And then there was the Yale side of things. In 2017, Tobin had two daughters attending Yale. While they hadn't been designated as soccer recruits, both played club soccer, which is how Tobin came to know the soccer coach, Rudy Meredith. Meredith had already been accepting bribes, via Singer, since 2015, according to prosecutors. Now, in the summer of 2017, just as Kate was a rising junior, the two men made contact directly and hatched a plan for bribe payments to be made in exchange for getting Kate in as a soccer recruit. A source close to the family says that Meredith was the instigator of this plan, and that he pressured Tobin, telling him that other parents were doing it. Whatever the case, the men agreed. The bribes would come in monthly installments and would total mid-six figures.
Kate was promptly told that she was being accepted as a soccer recruit to Yale. According to a source close to her, she was in the dark about what her father had done to make this happen and believed she had earned the spot on her own merits.
In September 2017, at the start of her junior year, Kate was sharing the exciting news with classmates. She even posted a photo of herself on Instagram wearing a Yale sweatshirt, grinning, with the following caption: "so excited to say that I have been committed to play soccer at yale." It didn't go over well. "The soccer thing was weird," says a parent. According to this parent, although she was a fine soccer player, those who understood the world of soccer recruitment didn't believe she was Division I material—her stats were not at that level. More important, the timing of the post felt show-offy and thoughtless, coming out just as her classmates were facing the daunting application process. But they threw their hands up—that was Kate Tobin for you.
THINGS FALL APART
The first cracks in the Singer case began to form over the course of the 2017-18 school year at Buckley, thanks to a savvy school guidance counselor, Julie Taylor-Vaz. She was sometimes treated like a concierge by the parents, according to a fellow administrator; they huffed when she didn't return calls immediately. But she was methodical and sharp. Sometime after Matteo Sloane got his conditional acceptance letter to USC, Taylor-Vaz spoke with a USC admissions officer, who told her about Matteo being admitted as a water polo recruit. She expressed her bewilderment—Buckley didn't have a water polo team. News of her skepticism traveled from the USC admissions office to USC senior women's athletic director Donna Heinel, who told Singer, who told Devin Sloane. Sloane grew indignant about the interference of Taylor-Vaz and wrote to Singer in an email: " The more I think about this, it is outrageous! [Buckley has] no business or legal right considering all the students [sic] privacy issues to be calling and challenging/question [my son]'s application."
The Sloane family managed to squeak by, with Matteo getting accepted into USC class of 2022. But during the same school year, the Bass family would be stopped in its tracks, bringing the truth one step closer to coming out. In December 2017, Taylor-Vaz found herself in a different curious conversation, this time with Tulane. A Tulane admissions officer said the college would be delighted to offer a spot to one of Buckley's students, Eliza Bass—an African American tennis whiz, ranked in the Top 10 in California, whose parents had never attended college. But Taylor-Vaz knew this wasn't true. Eliza was white. She didn't play tennis competitively. And her father was Adam Bass, a wealthy board member, with a B.A. and law degree from USD. Taylor-Vaz shared the information with her superiors. Puzzled, Buckley made calls to Georgetown and Loyola Marymount. They too wanted to accept Eliza, the African American tennis wonder. Buckley set the colleges straight and promptly got to work trying to determine what on earth was going on.
School brass spoke with Adam Bass, hoping to find answers. After initially failing to acknowledge that he'd hired an outside consultant for Eliza, Bass now admitted that Eliza was, in fact, using one: Rick Singer. Singer, Bass explained, according to a Buckley source, had asked for her name and password to her applications file. One of Singer's employees must have gotten in there, changed the application without Eliza's knowledge, and submitted it for her, Bass claimed. Eliza wrote an email to Georgetown and Tulane explaining the same. When pressed further by Georgetown, Eliza explained that her father had worked with Singer on charitable endeavors that helped disadvantaged inner-city youths. The colleges were unmoved, for a fairly obvious reason: No applicant should be in the position of having someone else in control of his or her application in the first place. The same falsehoods were on her applications to the University of California schools where Eliza had applied. She was allowed to retract those applications and reapply. (Adam Bass did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
As Eliza waited to hear back from Berkeley—her new first choice—life was about to get even more uncomfortable. Although the fact of her fraudulent application remained successfully hidden from the high school community, in February 2018 word began spreading about Eliza's grade change from the previous June. Students were angry and launched a protest against the board and headmaster, demanding an investigation. It became a local news story—with news trucks showing up on campus. The school's investigation cleared Busby of violating any guidelines, but he was later pushed to resign. Elliot Choi, then a co-editor in chief of the school newspaper, recalls Eliza coming to him in a distraught state, worrying what this would mean for her chances at Berkeley. Choi, one of the few kids who didn't come from a privileged background, gave her the only advice he could think of: Keep working hard and wait and see.
As soon as Georgetown learned the truth about Eliza's phony application as an African American tennis ace, it put tennis coach Gordon Ernst on leave and began an investigation into his recruiting practices. The investigation concluded that there were "irregularities in the athletic and other credentials" of two of Ernst's past recruits, but found no evidence of bribes and no trail that led to Singer. Ernst (who has pleaded not guilty to racketeering conspiracy) ended up getting a job at the University of Rhode Island. The matter stopped there. But in L.A., Morrie Tobin was about to blow the whole thing.
From around 2013 to the present—the same period during which three of his daughters came streaming into Yale—Tobin was engaged in a classic pump-and-dump stock scheme. Starting in 2017, investigators in Massachusetts began looking into the transactions, as some of the investors lived in the state. In March 2018, the FBI raided Tobin's house looking for materials and arrested him. According to prosecutors, Tobin was given a "multi-day proffer," in which he could offer whatever he knew about the stock scam in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. Tobin had something that turned out to be more explosive—a coach who was selling recruitment spots at Yale.
Cooperating now with the FBI, in an investigation the bureau dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, Tobin asked Meredith to meet him in a Boston hotel room, which the FBI had wired. Tobin paid Meredith $2,000 in the room, and they discussed where the final payment for the bribe would be wired. Over the course of their conversation, Meredith brought up a name, Rick Singer, as someone he was working with. It was the first time the FBI had heard his name, and they began following the trail. Over the summer of 2018, the FBI started wiretapping Singer's phone, gathering evidence on him and collecting dirt on parents along the way. By late September, the FBI had what it needed to arrest him. Singer flipped on his clients and coaches. He cooperated with the FBI, which led to dozens more wiretapped phone calls with parents and emails with coaches—and the eventual mass arrest of 50 people on March 12,2019.
The Wall Street Journal broke the news about the identity of the tipster in the case— Morrie Tobin—and revealed that he was also a participant in the bribery. Kate, according to a source, learned the news along with the rest of the world, and was in for the most traumatic day of her life as long-standing grudges against her exploded into a frenzy of schadenfreude. "When the article came out, [Kate] was literally sprinting down Rossmore, away from Marlborough. [Other girls] were laughing and being gleeful," says the source close to her. Later, when the college acceptances came out, and it was revealed that Kate had not been accepted to Yale, "they were all in the senior lounge, cheering and celebrating." This group had made up its mind about Kate's character—they believed that she must have been aware of her father's actions. Kate had her defenders, who insisted she knew nothing about what he had been doing. This only got the doubters wondering if some of the defenders hadn't also been paying bribes to get into college themselves. After all, they were from the wealthiest families in the class, and studying didn't seem to be their top priority. The atmosphere devolved into what one parent compared to Lord of the Flies. Everything was thrown into chaos and question. Even Lagnado, the retired science teacher, began to wonder. He remembers thinking, Now I understand why X was admitted and Y wasn't.
Over in Brentwood, Jack Buckingham was surely having one of the most horrific days of his life too. That morning, FBI agents had shown up at his house and taken his mother away. According to a Brentwood source, he lasted only a few periods before returning home. For his classmates, the reaction was complicated. On the one hand, they felt bad for him. Jack denied knowing anything about it, and his friends believed him. But it wasn't that simple. They remembered how weird it was that he'd taken the ACT at home. Now that mystery was solved, and many people were angry. For the kids who'd applied to USC and hadn't yet gotten in, they and their parents wondered if they had been cheated out of a spot. The families fretted that the scandal would tar Brentwood at large, and crush everyone's hard-fought efforts to get into any decent college. "We all thought our kids were going to be collateral damage," says one parent, pointing particularly to those who were white and privileged but not wealthy enough to donate a building. "We are the category that's going to get completely fucked." It didn't help Brentwood's image that in an unrelated incident, a kid who'd recently been rejected by Georgetown—and then accepted to Harvard—chose to email the following message to Georgetown: "Fuck you. I'm going to Harvard." Harvard learned of this; the kid is now taking a gap year.
A meeting for the parents of juniors and seniors led by the head of the school and top administrators devolved into "an absolute shit show," says one attendee. Brentwood officials tried their best to mollify the parents, assuring them that they'd been in touch with the colleges, and that the colleges were not putting the blame on the high schools, or any honest applicants from Brentwood. Still, the parents of Jack's friends weren't taking any chances. Some forbade their kid from hanging out at his house. God forbid a photographer on stake-out would snap a picture of them, drawing them into the mess. As for Jane Buckingham, puzzled, disillusioned friends on either coast reached out with tentative "just checking in" emails.
The parents caught up in the scheme have run the gamut in terms of their reactions to the scandal. Fourteen have pleaded guilty. Felicity Huffman was one of the first, stating, "With deep regret and shame over what I have done, I accept full responsibility for my actions." This was followed several weeks later by a guilty plea from Buckingham, who has made no public statement, but according to a friend has since "owned it" and even made self-deprecating jokes about it. These two women stand in stark contrast to Lori Loughlin. "No one can figure out what she's doing," says a person in her social group. She is among 19 other parents who are fighting the charges and going to trial. Adam Bass has paid no price for his involvement with Singer—perhaps because, as he told Buckley, he had no idea what Singer was doing; perhaps because the school successfully stopped an illicit scheme in its tracks, thus saving him from himself. Brian Werdesheim remains at Oppenheimer and on the Buckley board, despite being Singer's main champion.
The fates of many of the children remain up in the air. USC, the school sought by the majority of Singer's families, declined to admit this year's applicants involved with Singer. As for those currently enrolled, the school is examining each student's personal culpability. Georgetown has expelled two students: Isabelle Henriquez, who, according to the indictment, "gloated," along with her mother and the proctor who successfully cheated for her; and Adam Semprevivo, who'd been cc'd on at least one of the incriminating emails with Singer. He has maintained that he didn't know what his father was up to and he is suing Georgetown in part based on the assertion that Georgetown should have realized that his application was false, even as he, allegedly, did not. Jack Buckingham pleaded his innocence before the admissions office at Southern Methodist University and was accepted. Eliza Bass ended up at Berkeley, no thanks to her dad. Kate Tobin got an acceptance from USC and other colleges, according to a source close to her, but is still weighing her options. So the rich kids of L.A. will probably land on their feet. The real challenge might be recognizing—and rejecting—their parents' questionable values. That would be an achievement.